I love the idea behind social media services, helping to connect people and strengthen relationships. However I don’t think most are actually fulfilling on that vision. Sure, you can stay connected with friends. But your goals and the goals of the social service itself frequently aren’t aligned. The desire of social media services to drive the metrics they want based on your connections to friends and family have resulted in systems that prey on base urges. The result is systems that drive themselves off addiction loops. In the end they’re like overeating or smoking, bad habits. And I assume most people will look to weed out those behaviors in the interest of their overall health. That’s my view at least, so I took the plunge and deleted my Facebook account about a year ago.

At about the same time I decided to crank down a lot of my tech news consumption, and filter down the folks I follow on Twitter to people who regularly post things that are uniquely amusing or valuable. I had realized what I was really trying to do was:

  • make sure I had a good spread of new info coming in to keep generally informed
  • keep on top of what was going on in my industry

So I focused on directly solving those problems instead of having someone else try to correct for them by proxy. The first part was kicking back up my long-form reading habit, I started downloading and consuming lots of Kindle books. When we were working on Churn Labs I wanted to learn more about places that created long periods with high levels of innovation. In the info I was finding online I commonly came across the same examples over and over. Places like Florence during the period of the Medici family, or Apple, or Corning. But most of those posts online referenced books for details. In following up the references and just trying to get some details I picked up a few books and read them through.

At the time it had been a while since I sat down and read a book front to back that wasn’t either sci-fi or highly technical. I found that for the purposes of “researching” something, trying to dig into a new topic and understanding it well enough to be able to make a mental framework and form personal opinions, I was getting a lot more out of just reading long-form writing. When it comes to picking up a new subject most online resources don’t do a great job. I think that’s why there’s so much attention right now being thrown into “online learning.” The Internet is a fantastic way to keep up to date with a topic you already understand. But it’s generally falling flat when it comes to getting up to speed with something new. Fortunately for me I pick things up relatively well in written form, and I’m pretty good at filling in practical experience on my own. So when I hit something new, sometimes I’ll follow up the cursory Wikipedia overview with a book if the topic seems interesting enough. It can get to be an expensive habit, but I’m finding it to be well worth it. Hopefully soon all these education startups will make free resources I can use instead, but for now I’m sticking to the books.

Listening to podcasts has also helped a good deal with getting an overview. A bunch of the topics I’m interesting in following at a high level. I don’t have the background to follow all the details of new info, but I like to at least keep informed about major advances in science or engineering. Audio format delivery seems to be great for that. Lots of the podcasters keep things high level, I assume cause that’s best suited to the medium. So adding just a few shows like the Economist and Science Friday has made me feel like I’m pretty well on top of all the stuff I really care about. And I just use an app (Stitcher on Android for me) so I can listen to the shows while I walk to/from the train station. Fills up time that wasn’t really being well utilized before.

Then I had to figure out how to keep up with the details of the industry I’m working in. Or at least I thought I had to. Turns out that the generic information sources plus directly operating in the industry was already feeding me more than enough data. I lost a lot of noise by not following the tech industry coverage. And I figured keeping on top of daily events was necessary for conversations with other folks in the industry, otherwise you seem ignorant when someone asks you about a hot topic. But I found that with the noise gone I had stronger opinions and better judgment anyway, and the discussions I had were actually higher quality. Probably cause I had spent more time exploring and validating my own viewpoint, so I had a lot more to contribute to conversations.

Every now and again, there’s something that’s absolutely essential for me to catch quickly. What I’m finding is that normally someone will forward it to me. Usually to get my opinion on it. And I find that cause I’m consuming things outside the channels most folks pick through, I can serve that same role for others. Really, that’s my “social network” doing what I originally hoped it would do. Turns out the social tools were standing in the way.